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Dental Terminology: Weird Words’ World Origins, Part I August 16, 2012

Filed under: Dentistry,Uncategorized — Mall of Georgia Dentistry @ 10:47 pm
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Ever wonder the meaning and roots behind certain words, the why and how things acquired their names? Etymology is the study of word origins and the evolution of their meaning. The history and meaning of words is often straight forward and unsurprising, or sometimes more convoluted and uncertain with much lost in the mists of history. Other times there are unexpected, curious, or strange stories behind the names that we use for things.  Let’s look at the origins of a few words commonly heard around the dentist’s office:

“Dentist”
“Dent” is simply the word for “tooth” in French (listen to the French pronunciation here).  The word “dentist” has its origins in French as “dentiste“, which seems to have first been used in the mid 1700s and simply ads the suffix -iste (-ist in English), or “one who practices or is concerned with something”, to the word “dent”, tooth.

“Tooth”
In usage since at least the year 900, the origins of the word are a little more foggy, but according to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language as listed on dictionary.com: “Our word tooth comes from *dont-, a form of *dent-, with sound changes that resulted in the Germanic word *tanthuz. This word became Old English tōth and Modern English tooth.” Funny… so if tooth comes from “dent” then it looks like we came full circle with our word “dentistry”, though “toothistry” has a rather nice ring to it too, don’t you think?

“Fluoride”
Fluoride is a mineral used in dentistry because it helps harden or strengthen the enamel of the teeth. The substance traces its name way back to the a 16the century chemistry term, “fluor”- a Latin word meaning “flowing” that was used to describe fluxes in smelting. “Fluor” a.k.a. “fluorspar” (old-timey names for calcium fluoride) was the substance in which fluorine was first discovered and thus lent its name to the element. The word “Fluoride” actually refers to a compound of fluorine with another element. Odd how something named “flowing” helps harden your teeth!

“Plaque”
This is what we call the white filmy substance primarily formed by bacteria that sticks to your teeth, and it comes from French as a noun derivative of the verb plaquer–  meaning “to plate”, perhaps from Middle Dutch placken– “to patch”. Etymonline.com says : “Meaning ‘deposit on walls of arteries’ is first attested 1891; that of ‘bacteria deposits on teeth’ is 1898.” It shares roots with the other meaning of “plaque”- the thin, flat, ornamental or commemorative tablet or plate, as it seems that plaken may also mean “to beat (metal) into a thin plate.”

“Tartar”
The hardened plaque that builds up on your teeth. First used to describe the calcium phosphate encrusted on teeth in 1806, this term seems to be inspired by the stuff that encrusted the sides of wine casks, known in days of old as “bitartrate of potash”, which is potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar. Tartrate is from the Old French tartre, Middle Latin tartarum, late Greek tartaron…. and finding the meaning of Greek “tartaron” hasn’t been easy, but it did seem to have common usage in old days of wine-making with describing the dregs and sediment.

“Bruxism”
If you are not already familiar with this term, it really doesn’t require an advanced explanation since its etymology is so appropriate. This one is of Greek origin,  the Online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com says: “‘grinding the teeth unconsciously,’ from Gk. ebryxa, aorist root of brykein ‘to gnash the teeth.'”

“Prophylaxis”
This is a fancy term for a cleaning by a dental hygienist, and is often abbreviated to “prophy” in dentistry. The word prophylaxis is Neo-Latin, from Greek pro-, meaning “before, ahead of “, and phýlaxis– “a watching, guarding.”  So prophylaxis basically means to guard ahead of, or… oh, maybe, prevent? Yes, that sounds about right- frequent cleanings do help prevent a lot of problems!

So there is a brief history of a few words you may often hear at any dental practice including, of course Mall of Georgia Dentistry, and there are more that should make an entertaining read at some future date. Hopefully you enjoyed learning about some of the phrases you probably hear Dr. Vancil and the team using, along with a few you surely sometimes say yourself, and where they came from… something we don’t usually stop to think about.  But do you know what we hope you are stopping often to think about? …your teeth! And mouth, and gums- at least twice a day, with toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss in hand 🙂

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One Response to “Dental Terminology: Weird Words’ World Origins, Part I”

  1. […] you enjoyed this, you should check out Part 1 if you haven’t already.  And, as always, take good care your “scissor teeth”, […]


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